Lion Country Set for Wave of Profits From Water Park

May 20, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

The animals are gone, a new water-oriented recreation area is about to open and the company's primary business these days is subleasing its valuable Irvine acreage.

But the changes seem to be for the good--Lion Country Inc., after three years of mounting losses, expects to post a profit for its fiscal 1986. And to cap these changes, the company plans to change its name as well, according to Harry E. Shuster, the park's founder and president.

After several years of declining popularity, the drive-through wild animal park was closed for good last year and a smattering of recreational uses--ranging from a $4.5-million water park to a 4,000-seat picnic area--have replaced a portion of the preserve.

All the attractions--including the popular Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre--are operated on subleases from Lion Country, which in turn leases its 100-acre parcel from the Irvine Co. under an agreement that will expire in 1999. It is a lease that the Irvine Co., conscious of the land's value for commercial development, has said it will not renew.

The newest operation at Lion Country is the privately operated water park, scheduled to open June 7. Shuster's company also leases land for "Eagle Country," a picnic area that opened on the park grounds earlier this month and is rented to corporate groups for large outings.

Six softball diamonds scheduled to be leased to a local softball league are now under construction, and Lion Country is negotiating with an outfit that proposes to build a golf driving range on the site.

As a result of all these changes, Shuster said, "we should stop losing money and start making some this year." He also said that the change in the corporation from a wild animal park operator to a land leasing concern has prompted him to seek a name change for the 16-year-old company. Shareholders will be asked to approve a new corporate name at the company's July shareholders meeting, Shuster said.

He refused to divulge the proposed new corporate name but said the park itself will continue to be called Lion Country. "We're listed on so many maps as Lion Country that it just seems silly to change to something else," he said.

So the newest attraction will be called Wild Rivers at Lion Country.

It will contain 40 attractions, including water rides, activity pools and 19 different water slides.

400,000 Visitors Expected

Appropriately, the water park's advertising slogan is "Drop In Soon." The company expects that 400,000 visitors will do just that before the season ends in mid-October, said Steve Luchenbach, director of marketing at Wild Rivers.

But the water park will be opening behind schedule. Officials originally had hoped to open in time for the 1985 summer season, but lengthy squabbles with Irvine city planners kept the bulldozers idle through last summer. And when construction finally began, it was soon delayed by unusually heavy winter rains. "At one point, we discussed renaming it Muddy Rivers," Luchenbach said.

Orientation for the water park's 200 employees began Monday, even with construction still under way on the main gate and a central "mountain" that will support most of the water slides.

Wild Rivers officials have lined up three corporate sponsors: PepsiCo Inc., Native Tan Suntanning Products and Carnation Dairies--whose products all will be on sale at the park.

The early strength of corporate group sales for large outings at the water park--particularly the keen interest from companies in San Diego County--has surprised park officials, Luchenbach said.

Special Rates Offered

Some of that corporate interest has been sparked by American Eagle Productions of Anaheim, which has pumped more than $100,000 worth of improvements into the eight-acre Eagle Country picnic area next to the water park. The water park and picnic area plan to combine to offer special group rates.

The picnic area is available to groups of up to 4,000, said Garry James, vice president at American Eagle. The 30-year-old company operates three other picnic facilities in Irvine, Garden Grove and Anaheim, but none is adjacent to an amusement area.

"Lion Country is a sleeping giant," said James. "With the animals gone, what remains is a beautiful facility."

With all the changes under way, Lion Country's Shuster said he does not envision a return of animals to Lion Country, "except maybe squirrels."

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